Experience Design: 4 Ways to Make Your Next Event Unforgettable

Jenny Gottstein and Olivia Vagelos of IDEO’s Play Lab

Before you read any further, hit play on the playlist below, bust a move (chair dancing is permitted), and take a few minutes to think about an intentionally designed experience that left you smiling from ear to ear. It could be a potluck, a conference, a retirement party, etc.


What is experience design?

Now that you’re loosened up, let’s get started. We’re here to talk about experience design. 

Experience design is the crafting of distinct, memorable and transformative moments in time. Experience designers aren’t just designing what people might do, but also what people might feel. Well-designed experiences change your audience in some way—a shift in feelings, beliefs or actions. 

IDEO experience designers Jenny Gottstein and Olivia Vagelos have created transformational experiences for clients in a range of industries, including education, entertainment, mobility and healthcare. They’re part of the self-proclaimed merry group of mischief makers at IDEO’s Play Lab, where they tackle challenges across industries (from digital game concepts to destigmatizing mental health), using play to spark imagination, deepen engagement and bring joy to people of all ages. 

Jenny and Olivia took over the Creative Confidence Podcast for a primer on experience design. We’ll get meta on that podcast episode in a little bit (it’s a great case study for designing an auditory experience). Listen to the episode for more juicy details and stories (a wedding reception, an entrepreneur’s pitch meeting, an incubator program for scientists) that show how just about any experience can be made better with a bit of intentional design.


Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

4 things you can do to make any experience better

You’re guaranteed to have a great experience if Beyonce is there, but alas, her schedule is pretty booked up. So here are four things you can actually control. 

Download the experience design workbook Jenny and Olivia cooked up to use as a guide when planning your next experience. It has helpful prompts to walk you through each of the four tips.

Download Your Experience Design Workbook

(Click the link, then select File, Download, PDF Document.)


Graphic showing four elements to consider in experience design: audience, openings, closings, process


1. Know your audience

It is exceptionally hard to inspire change in someone when you don't know anything about them. Transformation requires a shift in someone’s internal state, and you can’t tell your audience what to feel. Has a directive of “feel excited now” ever worked to amp up a crowd? You have to create the conditions that lead to that emotional shift. To do that, you have to know who they are and what they care about. 

Too often we start by focusing on the activities we want to happen during our experience. Here’s the switch we’re inviting you to make: start with the feelings you want to inspire, and figure out the activities later. 

Example in the podcast: An IDEO portfolio review where glow-in-the-dark paint and a blacklight were key ingredients. 


2. Design an opening moment

The beginning of the experience is your opportunity to set the tone and the rules of engagement. It shows the people you've invited what the experience is going to be all about and it helps people transition in from wherever it is they’re coming from—physically, spiritually, emotionally. In the world of play and game design we call this “entering the magic circle.”

Examples in the podcast: A wedding where the happy couple created ways for their guests to meaningfully connect. A pitch meeting for an entrepreneur’s oral health business where emotions took center stage. 


3. Design a closing moment

You can't design for every second. And good news! You actually don't need to. People tend to remember the standout moments, both good and bad, and the ending of an experience (a concept called the “peak-end rule” that’s explored further in Chip and Dan Heath’s book The Power of Moments). 

So don’t put all of your energy into the middle bits and completely ignore the ending. Be thoughtful about how you close out an experience. There’s no ice cream sandwich without the two cookies, amiright? Use the ending moment to offer closure by revisiting a prompt or idea from earlier, or generate some warm-fuzzies by sharing a moment of gratitude with your participants. 

Example in the podcast: A seance for science where more than a few happy tears were shed by typically “all-business” types. 


4. Prototype your process

You might be familiar with the idea of prototyping for a product or service, but it does wonders for experiences too. We’re not saying you should plan everything (focus on the moments that matter, like openings and closings), but often we don’t plan the nitty gritty details of how an experience will unfold. Or on the flip side, we plan every last detail, but we don’t play it out. Prototyping your experience helps you build to think. By practicing it very badly a few times, you can cut the terrible ideas before they make it to the final experience. 

Experience design prototyping tools include Brain Dumps, Run of Shows, and Run Thrus, evolving from VBRTs (Very bad run thrus) to YOGRTs (Yes! Outstandingly great run thrus). To answer your question, yes, VBRTs and YOGRTs are official super serious industry terms that we totally made up. Because another thing we hold near and dear in the Play Lab: if you want to design something epic, you can’t take yourself too seriously.  

Examples in the podcast: Here’s where the time-space continuum starts to warp. The example in the podcast IS the podcast. Let’s dive into how Jenny and Olivia designed and prototyped it.



“It is exceptionally hard to inspire change in someone when you don't know anything about them.”
Olivia Vagelos



Case study: Experience design webcast

IDEO U’s Creative Confidence Podcast starts out as a live video event where our community joins us to watch and ask questions. Here’s how Jenny and Olivia used their four experience design tips to craft the event. Watch the full webcast on our Facebook page.


1. Optimizing for a varied audience

Because the live event was on video but would be turned into a podcast afterward, they included visuals but specifically made sure the content would make sense with just audio. They also knew listeners would have varying levels of understanding around experience design and a desire for actionable tips. It would be important to ground the conversation by defining experience design and create a workbook as a takeaway. 


2. Opening with a dance party

What’s better than a dance party to set the tone and invite connection? Jenny and Olivia busted a few moves and invited everyone to share their name, location and pronouns in the chat to warm up the room and connect folks calling in from all over the globe. 


3. Closing with a reflection

Jenny and Olivia closed the loop by asking listeners to reflect on what they learned and what tools they’d use. They also ended with gratitude by giving a shout out to teammates who helped by crafting beautiful visuals and suffering through painfully bad practice runs (yay for VBRTs!). The dance party came full circle to close out the event, prompting responses like the below from the live audience: 

“My 8 year old son here can’t believe the presenters are dancing this out ... lol ... that makes it totally worth it!” — Shonan

“Totally changed my mood, just awesome” — Chris

“Love this type of webinars where we can learn a lot, have fun, laugh and be silly. Rock on!!!” — Checho


A GIF image showing two women dancing together on a video call in separate screens.

Jenny (top) and Olivia (bottom) grooving to the music.


4. Prototyping to choose the best stories

While you *hopefully* thought the live webcast Jenny and Olivia hosted was insightful and fun, you didn’t see all the we’re-definitely-cutting-that moments that got the boot before the final event. You’re going for enthusiastic face-plants with your VBRTs. When we say “very bad,” we mean it. And your brain dump doc should be Messy with a capital M. 

Over the course of five VBRTs, many awkward dance moves were refined and phrases like “oops, that section took 11 minutes longer than it was supposed to” were uttered. Jenny and Olivia asked what examples resonated most with their VBRT attendees and chopped down hours of potential content to fit the 45-minute time constraint. 

A screenshot of a spreadsheet showing the run of show for a virtual event.

Part of the run of show document where Jenny and Olivia tracked how long it would take them to play through each part of the event.

How might you make your next experience more impactful?

Alright, folks, let’s wrap this party up. In the words of a wise lead singer of a band you may have listened to in the ‘90s, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.” It’s time for you to take the wheel. 

What’s one thing you might do to make your next experience more memorable and transformative? 

Remember, the experience design workbook can help you put these tools into action.

Resources for further exploration

Interested in learning more about experience design? Jenny and Olivia suggest digging into these resources for inspiration. Some are leading thinkers in experience design and strategy, some are from IDEO, and some are organizations or groups doing great work in this space. 

The Power of Moments, by Chip and Dan Heath 

The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker 

Emergent Strategy, by Adrienne Maree Brown 

Beytna Design

Creative Reaction Lab

4 Reasons Warm-Ups Will Fundamentally Change Your Work, by Olivia Vagelos

Slides from Jenny and Olivia’s IDEO U webcast

The Better Experience Collective, a LinkedIn group formed by attendees of Jenny and Olivia’s IDEO U webcast 

Thank you to Jenny and Olivia for the hours they spent preparing this experience design primer and for sharing their wisdom with the IDEO U community. Thanks to Stephanie Sizemore for the beautifully designed deck. To Geoff Schwarten, Rachel Youngblade, Gloria Cho, Kaison Tanabe, and Emma Leyden at IDEO U for making the live event and podcast editing go smoothly. To the thousands (!!) of people who attended the live event—some during the middle of the night local time. And thanks to YOU for reading this far and for your interest in making less-sucky experiences. 

About Jenny Gottstein 

As a Design Lead at IDEO, Jenny leads projects across industries, finding ways to leverage play and experience design to improve healthcare, transportation, education, new business ventures, circular economies and public policy.

About Olivia Vagelos 

Olivia is an experiential, instructional, and community designer at IDEO. She works to build transformative spaces, relationships, and systems that empower people to be creative agents of change. She believes laughter and questions build the most beautiful things.

About IDEO’s Play Lab

IDEO’s Play Lab tackles challenges across industries, using play to spark imagination, deepen engagement and bring joy to people of all ages. Our deep knowledge about play psychology and game design is grounded in 25+ years in toy invention. Our projects range from designing everything from physical play spaces to digital game concepts, from mixed reality experiences to playful products, and we’re game to tackle the world’s meatiest challenges from destigmatizing mental health to moving our partners closer to operating within a circular economy. We help organizations connect with people at a deeper, emotional level that captivates, delights and inspires. Learn more at ideoplaylab.com.

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